Eisenhower, an Unlikely Pioneer of TV Ads

tags: Eisenhower, TV Ads

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, is the author of nine books and a contributor to NBC News and “PBS NewsHour.”

The year 1952 was the first presidential election year in which a sizable number of Americans — an estimated 40 million — owned televisions. Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, one of the architects of the effort to “draft” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, clearly suspected that TV was going to change everything.

Dewey had dabbled with the medium while running against Harry Truman in 1948, and he realized that making use of it in 1952 would be expensive. Before then, money had not been so decisive in presidential politics. Votes were largely delivered by already existing local party organizations, and there were only so many campaign signs, bumper stickers and buttons you could buy.

In a private meeting, Dewey told his draft-Eisenhower allies, “Don’t forget, let’s get a hell of a lot of money!” The result was the beginning of the world we know today, where presidential candidates compete to raise billions of dollars that will be spent largely on commercials.

After Eisenhower won the Republican nomination in July 1952, his handlers fretted over his wooden appearances on the stump. The general’s friend and adviser Ben Duffy, president of the Madison Avenue firm Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (now BBDO), gently explained to him that a TV campaign could convey his warmth and integrity.

As Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates note in “The Spot” (MIT Press, 1984), Ike replied, “You are telling me things I ought to have been told from the start and that nobody told me.” ...

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